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Independents and PBS

The storm clouds gathering on public television’s fiscal horizon, brought on by President Bush’s 2003 proposed budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have passed for the moment. After intense lobbying from public television supporters, Congress cut CPB’s 2003 budget by 0.65 percent instead of the expected three percent. But, even though the cuts weren’t as extensive as everyone feared, “2004 is still completely up in the air,” according to John Wilson, PBS senior vice president and co-chief program executive. Public television also still faces the unprecedented strain of tackling its federal obligation to convert to digital broadcasting by May of this year—which will cost $1.8 billion. As of press time, one hundred stations have switched over. The threat of tightening federal funds carries with it the fear of shrinking production funds—making matters worse for independents.

PBS, a membership organization of public television stations, relies heavily on the public monies it receives through CPB, which is a private grant-making entity that Congress created in 1967 to finance the development of educational and cultural programs. It remains the largest single source of funds for PBS. This means when CPB’s budget gets cut, so does everybody else’s.

Public television heavyweight Bill Moyers warned the PBS board last year that “There is a danger in impoverishing independent producers who provide the diverse voices that fill seventy-five percent of public television’s broadcast hours.” Bill Moyers, long a committed supporter of independents, works with a number of independent producers on NOW with Bill Moyers and, therefore, doesn’t use a large in-house staff.

Productions with independent involvement make up the majority of the original programming PBS broadcasts. But it is the very definition of the term “independent” that has historically caused conflict between the independent community and the public broadcast entities. Both PBS and CPB often count anyone who is not salaried by the station as an independent, including filmmakers who have coproductions with local stations or strands, or foreign production involvement. This inflates the number of independent productions that can be claimed. CPB’s records indicate that of the forty-five television, web, and digital programming projects it supported in fiscal year 2001, twenty-eight of them (or sixty-two percent) were produced by independents. But many independents prefer to define themselves as producers of their own stand-alone films, not programs where the final creative authority rests with a staff producer who must make the production fit within the tight framework and identity of a PBS strand. The accusation is that working for these strands often becomes more of a work-for-hire situation than an environment where independent views or projects are created. Sally Jo Fifer, executive director of ITVS (Independent Television Service) believes, “It’s important to see all types of independents as having important roles in public television. There’s room for everybody.”

In the 1980’s, critics attacked PBS on exactly these grounds, protesting that the broadcaster wasn’t fulfilling its mission to sustain diverse and underrepresented voices. Throughout the decade, the independent production community, through a national coalition led by AIVF, rallied advocates to convince Congress that funds for producers working independently of public TV stations were significantly fewer than the fifty percent or so of the programming funds claimed by CPB, which they were legally bound to provide. According to the 1978 Telecommunications Act, CPB was required to allocate a “substantial” amount of their programming funds to independent producers. A committee report eventually defined “substantial” as no fewer than fifty percent. It was from this struggle that Congress, in 1988, created an “independent production service,” which eventually became ITVS, as a separate fund to ensure that CPB would financially support independent producers and give them the access to the public television system that they’d been lacking.

Many in the independent community believe that the language in the 1978 act still stands, and that CPB is mandated by Congress to spend at least fifty percent of their production budget on independents through ITVS. In fact, the 1988 act overrides the previous laws. The wording in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988 does not use the word “substantial.” Instead it requires CPB to provide “adequate funds” for independent productions. In fact, ITVS received its first significant increase in funding in 2002. In 1992, CPB was further directed to keep Congress “fully apprised” of ITVS’s progress in fulfilling this rather vague requirement, according to the office of one of the champions of independents in Congress, US Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA), co-author of the 1992 Telecommunications Act. “I will fully support efforts to secure funding for those independent producers,” says Markey, “who celebrate our rich cultural diversity.”

ITVS remains an essential part of the independent public television landscape. “I think that we’ve done a very good job of showing the system and the programmers and CPB that ITVS is important for bringing diverse programming to the public,” says ITVS’s Fifer. But independent producers are only one of the three masters ITVS was created to serve, the other two being the public television system itself and its audience. As demographics change and public television has to compete for new audiences, PBS has become an ally to ITVS. As Wilson says, independent films are “another great avenue for viewers to come to PBS who might not check us out otherwise.”

John De Graaf, an independent affiliated with KCTS in Seattle, has had more than fifteen of his programs broadcast nationally on primetime PBS over the past twenty-five years, including the popular documentary Affluenza. He sees a problem in what ITVS ends up funding—believing that there is a tendency to “fund things that are pretty marginal in terms of who’s going to watch them. If things are a bit mainstream, there’s a feeling that they’ll get funding somewhere else.”

With as much clout as ITVS now has, and operating with a budget of $9.5 million in fiscal year 2003, there is still no guarantee of final broadcast of their projects on PBS. ITVS funds fewer than five percent of the proposals it receives, and only about fifteen to eighteen of their projects air each year on NPS and PBS Plus. However, through the program Independent Lens, which is now jointly curated by PBS and ITVS, there will be more ITVS programs shown this year.

Outside of ITVS, public television acquisition fees usually don’t come close to covering the production cost—on average, PBS contributes only twenty-four percent of the production cost of a program.

Take, for example, the two steadfast gateways for independents into the PBS world—P.O.V. and Independent Lens. Recently expanded to twenty-nine primetime episodes a year, Independent Lens, combined with P.O.V., provide a year-round presence for independents on PBS. Both series remain platforms for truly independent, non-series films. And, unlike films accepted into the American Masters and American Experience strands, for example, their films do not have to adhere to a tightly bound format.

In keeping with the true spirit of independents—particularly those who take pride in working outside the system—ten of the fourteen shows on Independent Lens’s opening slate this spring were either found at festivals or submitted during last year’s call for submissions. “The series is meant to be a service to producers that didn’t get ITVS or public television funding,” says Claire Aguilar, director of programming at ITVS.

However, Independent Lens offers only a $20,000 acquisition fee for films that were produced without ITVS, Minority Consortia, or other public television funding. Films that receive funds through a public broadcasting source (including ITVS) are automatically licensed to PBS for a designated time period and receive no additional fees.

P.O.V. also prides itself on reaching out to filmmakers who haven’t accessed public television funding. As Cara Mertes, P.O.V.’s executive producer, says, “We’re constantly bringing in first-time filmmakers or established filmmakers who haven’t worked with or been on PBS before.”

Their emerging minority filmmakers’ Diverse Voices project is an example of P.O.V.’s move towards the coproduction of films. The five projects selected last season each received up to $80,000 for a show-hour in coproduction funding, which certainly beats P.O.V.’s base acquisition rate of about $30,000 for an hour-long show. Now P.O.V. can “invest at a higher level and an earlier stage and offer mentoring and training possibilities,” says Mertes. Last year, however, P.O.V., which is produced by American Documentary, a nonprofit organization separate from PBS, had its multiyear funding cut back to single-year funding, which Mertes hopes is a temporary situation.

Not surprisingly, a funding highlight for independents comes from ITVS. Beyond its open call program, which provides completion funds, ITVS has found a successful way for independents to copartner with their local or regional public television stations through its Local Independents Collaborating with Stations (LInCS) program. Through LInCS, producers work directly with the stations, have access to station resources such as production and postproduction services, fundraising and promotion expertise, and learn how the public television system works. Now in its seventh year, LInCS provides the independent with up to $75,000 cash, which is matched either by station in-kind or other sources such as grant or foundation money. This copartnership is especially important because the majority of CPB funds go directly to the 350 local television stations and, as a membership organization, PBS gets most of its funds from dues paid by its member stations, for which it provides the service of packaging programming. It brings to the public television stations, “a diversity of producers who haven’t had lots of experience and who get their first entrée into public television,” notes Lois Vossen, Independent Lens producer and director of broadcast distribution and communications at ITVS. It also provides an opportunity for both parties to produce and present diverse programming.

The majority of content on PBS is produced by individual television stations. And even though 171 of all the stations are set up to supply programming to PBS, in 2001, thirty-seven percent of PBS’s total broadcast hours were produced or presented by three stations—WNET in New York, WGBH in Boston, and WETA in Washington, DC. These big producing stations are very important to PBS because of the large amount of revenue they bring in and because they provide “anchor” programming, such as Frontline, Exxon-Mobile Masterpiece Theater, and Nature. Of the remaining licensees, forty-nine produced or presented some programs in 2001, and some have their own local independent showcases.

So what’s the solution for independents in search of production funding for projects bound for PBS? “I think that it’s terribly hard to get independent funding, and the funding doesn’t come from public television. I think that the future for socially engaged documentary involves partnerships with nonprofits,” says professor Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media. But she also points out that these are difficult times due to shrinking funding sources caused by a recession, the federal government’s “hostility to nonprofits,” and declining federal funds for film-funding agencies.

With their funding sources dwindling, independents seeking alternative funding also face another challenge—PBS underwriting guidelines that sometimes turn away independent filmmakers whose funding and support comes from restricted sources, such as public-interest and labor groups. “We try to apply this rule even-handedly,” says PBS’s John Wilson, “but sometimes it has the unintended consequences of keeping good films off the air. But I think that’s the price we have to pay as a noncommercial public service broadcaster.”

There is a belief that PBS enforces these guidelines more strictly for groups such as unions more than they do for corporations. “PBS guidelines are selectively applied,” says Danny Schechter, an independent television producer and filmmaker whose most recent documentary, Globalization and Human Rights, was shown on PBS nationally. “If it’s a show funded by Wall Street, that’s ‘not a conflict.’ If it’s a show about union history and a labor group is involved—that’s a ‘conflict of interest.’ Don’t forget, this is public broadcasting—this is supposed to represent, to some degree, what’s excluded from the commercial spectrum, not duplicate it.”

And many of these groups are exactly the ones that have the commitment to support independent films. Although these guidelines have been relaxed over the years, some say they still undermine one of PBS’s stated missions—to “treat complex social issues completely.” As Jerry Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, sees it, “There is, in our view, a form of de facto censorship of films that address social problems. It has really cut out a lot of filmmakers who would make social films.”

PBS requires full funding disclosure from P.O.V., Independent Lens, and ITVS, since many shows come to them with some funding already in place. “Often the people giving money are interested in that content, for some reason,” says ITVS’s Vossen. “But there’s a difference between supporting a media project because you’re interested in content, and having editorial control over that project.”

But regardless of funding sources, finding a slot within the public broadcasting system that allows an indpendent editorial control over their own project is a challenge. The increase of common carriage hours, most of which are given to major programming strands or limited series, means shrinking airtime for one-offs, or stand-alone films. This also means it will be even harder for many independents to find funding, because funders want to know that the film is going to get on the air.

Historically, ITVS programs have rarely made it onto the major programming strands. But both Vossen and Aguilar see the ever-increasing common carriage hours as a double-edged sword. “In the early years, the fact that there wasn’t as much common carriage meant that programmers had more mobility in their schedules, which was a lifesaver for us at ITVS,” says Vossen. “We’d work directly with [local] programmers who would take our shows when PBS didn’t. But now that we have a series, we want all these independents to be on common carriage and to get maximum exposure so we can do national public relations for them.”

The flip side of the increase in common carriage and decrease in one-offs is that, according to Aguilar, “it takes away some of the autonomy from programmers and local shows which are produced by independents.”

Not many of the stations are very anxious to fund one-offs either, because it’s hard to attract attention to them, and time-consuming to negotiate when they could simply buy one of the programming packages. “It’s getting harder to get one-offs into even a 10:00 p.m. time slot, and although funders aren’t insistent about being on the core,” says De Graaf, “they do want to know that the film they’re investing in is going to get on the air.”

As technology, media competition, and a tenuous fiscal and political climate all converge to place more pressure on public television, it remains to be seen what kind of funding partnership independents and PBS will continue to forge. Even with the addition of Independent Lens, the tension between some in the independent community and PBS will most likely continue. The competition for diminishing funds means that the odds are still against getting an independent film even partially funded by public television. But with all its perceived shortcomings, now, more than ever, public television is vital to independent producers. As the Center for Social Media’s Aufderheide notes, “There’s no other place to either nurture or showcase independent production that doesn’t fall into certain very narrow categories—and that means that it can never do enough.”

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